Matahara and the Decline of the Japanese Birth Rate

Published April 24th, 2015

Japan’s population is currently around 130 million people. That’s a pretty big number for a relatively small island nation. But by the year 2050, that number could shrink to as low at 97 million, according to some estimates.[1] In 2015, Japan’s birthrate fell to a record low for the fourth straight year in a row.[2] Women are having fewer babies across the country and the Japanese government is desperate to reverse this trend. Obviously, in order to do this, the birthrate needs to be increased. But how low is the Japanese birth rate, really?

The average number of children born to one Japanese woman is 1.43. Japan needs to reach 2.07-2.08 just to maintain their current population levels. Reasons cited for these rates, which have been declining almost steadily since after WWII, are the rising cost of child care, the increase of women in the workforce, the age of marriage getting pushed back, and changes in social customs. These issues are all certainly contributing to the problem. But is there another, darker, reason why Japanese women aren’t giving birth?

Japanese Birth Rate DeclineTokyo Disney; Image via Flickr

Like many countries around the world, women’s issues in the workplace have stirred up controversy of late. In America, there has been recent debate over the lack of mandatory paid maternity leave. While Japan does offer paid maternity (or paternity) leave, it may not always be so easy for women to take advantage of it. More often than not women are “encouraged” to quit their jobs if they want to pursue motherhood, rather than try to balance work and family life as so many women do around the world.

This issue was recently made famous by Sayaka Osakabe[3], who won the US State Department’s 2015 International Woman of Courage Award. After being denied a leave of absence and shorter working hours during her pregnancies (and suffering two stress-related miscarriages) Osakabe did finally quit her job under duress, and brought her company to the labor tribunal for “matahara” (マタハラ), a term she coined. It is a portmanteau of maternity and harassment, which has now become an official legal term.

Though Japanese law specifically bans demotion due to pregnancy, women continue to find themselves in these challenging situations. And in addition to worries about job security if they do become pregnant, many women simply work too much to even consider it. It seems in Japan most women have to choose between having a family and having a career, and an increasing number of women are choosing the latter. Of the women that do have a family, over 70% had to quit their jobs in order to do so.[4]

To make things more difficult, despite the fact that Japanese fathers are allowed to take paternity leave, less than 3% of them actually do. Many out of fear of losing their jobs or missing out on a promotion. According to a recent survey, more than 30% of men actually want to take child care leave. This has created a new name for these awesome dads: iku-men (イクメン or 育メン). The kanji, , means raising or child rearing, so as you can see it’s becoming increasingly trendy for men to want an active part in raising their children. But sadly, that doesn’t make it a reality. While husbands in Sweden, Germany, and the US spend three hours a day on average helping out with household chores and childcare, in Japan it’s only one hour. And the average time a father spends with their children is just 15 minutes a day.

It’s no wonder that so many women in Japan are overwhelmed at the prospect of starting a family. Hopefully, Osakabe’s website and support group, MataharaNet, will help bring these issues to light and give more women the confidence to confront the harassment they’ve faced in the workplace. In the meantime, Japan’s economy is facing a real pressure to replace the generations of earners that are quickly moving into retirement. And as long as women are postponing starting a family, or forgoing it altogether, there won’t be a younger generation there to take their place.